Moving from school to university? Here’s what you need to know

Understanding how third-level differs from school will be one of the first challenges

Just like every coming-of-age movie says, the progression from school to university is a big change.

For many, it means moving away from home for the first time, leaving friends behind and beginning a new chapter in your education.

The shift is often equal parts terrifying and exciting, as thousands of young people get their first taste of independence.

Being a self-starter

At some stage in the first few weeks, it is likely you will feel overwhelmed. University is different from secondary school, where you are spoon-fed and guided by teachers.


This means that you no longer have someone begging you to do homework on time, or even to show up to class. It’s down to you to motivate yourself to do these things.

Kate Goodman, vice-president for academic affairs at Dublin City University's Students' Union, said starting assignments early is the easiest way to ameliorate the stressful periods of the semester.

“At the end of a semester a lot of assignments are due together and then so are exams starting, which you’ll want to study for. My advice is to really start an assignment when you’ve covered the topic in class,” she said.

Ms Goodman added that while attendance isn’t mandatory or monitored in a lot of classes, it is still considerably better than trying to teach yourself through the slides that lecturers upload online.

Different grading system

High-achievers in secondary school are well accustomed to receiving between 80 and 90 per cent on homework or in class tests, but the grading system is remarkably different in university, according to Ms Goodman.

Anything over 70 per cent is a first-class honours result, which is the highest grade an individual can receive.

Less than 20 per cent of graduates finish with a first-class honours degree.

“Students shouldn’t be disappointed if they’re not continuing to receive 90 per cent, it’s a very different system,” Ms Goodman said.

What if I’m struggling?

Often, courses are very different in reality than what prospective students had imagined.

The first semester, in particular, can be challenging, as courses can be loaded with introductory modules, which many students report finding monotonous.

If you’re struggling, there are plenty of supports available including a maths learning centre, a writing centre or the students’ union.

Speaking to a lecturer or course tutor, setting up a study group with friends or dedicating a solid weekend to study can also get you back on track in most cases.

Dropping out

Sometimes, despite your best efforts, you might be in a course that isn’t right for you.

The most recent figures from the Higher Education Authority showed that 24 per cent of students don't complete their courses.

If this is how you feel, then there are always people available to speak with you to help decide whether you should leave the course, or if it is possible to switch to another one.

The timing of when you drop out is important though, and you should act quickly, as there are implications for how much money you will be reimbursed.

The end of October is pivotal, as there is no fee implication if you leave your course before then. If you leave between October 31st and January 31st, you lose half your college fees, and if you leave after January 31st you lose the entire fee for the year.


As we all know, the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on our education system over the past 18 months.

Most university students have studied completely remotely since March 2020. However, the Government said this year will be different, due to the successful rollout of the vaccination programme.

While it is likely there will be some hybrid learning – a mix of in-person and at-home classes – at least in the early part of the academic year, it is important that students keep connected with peers.

The jump to university life is difficult already, and doesn’t need any additional challenges posed by the loneliness of working remotely.

Add classmates on social media, hold video chats for group projects or even have a celebratory Zoom drink when an assignment has been handed in.

There are, however, some benefits of online learning that should be utilised by students, according to Ms Goodman.

“A lot of students I spoke to actually quite enjoyed online, because they found it easier to ask questions. Instead of trying to catch a lecturer at the end of class when everyone is trying to leave, they were able to send an email and get an answer,” she said.

Get involved

While education is a driving factor behind people’s decisions to go to university, social life is another significant reason.

Nobody has ever said that making friends is easy, but a campus with thousands of similarly-aged people is the perfect place to put yourself out there.

There are the people you will be studying alongside in your course, and those you meet as part of the night life, but there are plenty of other ways to make friends.

According to Mark O’Donnell, who was the vice-president for events and engagement at Technoligical Univesity Dublin’s Students’ Union, but has recently taken the role of president, clubs and societies are a key part of university life.

“When I was in first year, I joined a society as a representative. All of my best friends from college were people I met through clubs and societies,” he said.

Try new things

These clubs also allow students to taste extra-curricular activities they may have never tried before, Mr O’Donnell said.

"There are a lot of resources available to you. So if you join a society, a lot of the events are funded, workshops and trips. I got to do things like abseiling off Croke Park and going to a student conference in America." he added.

“If you’re in a photo society, for example, they have loads of great camera equipment so if you’ve never picked up a camera in your life, you can get really good access to DSLRs [digital single-lens reflex cameras].”

Part-time work

It is likely for many students that your first year in college will also coincide with your first foray into the working world, particularly as the cost of rent and living in Ireland continues to rise.

This can be difficult to manage, and many students feel like they can’t have a social life, work a job and do well in college. It is manageable, however, so long as you practise good time-keeping.

It is important to ensure your study is not sacrificed as a result of your part-time job. For those who are struggling financially, they should contact the students’ union or apply for a hardship grant.

Knowing when your busy periods in college are can help facilitate a happy balance between work and study.

It is helpful to discuss this from the outset with your boss or manager – particularly if you are given your exam dates in advance – so you can focus on studying without leaving colleagues in the lurch.


Having a weekly or monthly budget will help balance your work life. If you spend less, you can work less.

For example, a tip from students’ unions to help reduce expenditure is, if you’re under 19, retain your child’s leap card, which works out at a better rate than a student card.

Many universities also offer a free Microsoft Word package, so you can save yourself €100.

And while books are required for many classes, that doesn’t mean you have to buy them all. They are expensive, and for some courses you would require them only for a short period of time. Check to see if your library has them first or reach out to people in the year ahead of you to see if they are selling their old books.

Essays and assignments

Gone are the days when you learned essays or quotes just to pass an exam. Now, each assignment will be closer to a research project than anything you have dealt with before.

Planning is key to success in this regard. Students should read widely on the subject and then plan their argument.

It is easiest if you break the essay up into bullet points so you can make sure you highlight all of the important points.

A spider-diagram can be a good way to get started if you are procrastinating or are having trouble articulating your ideas.

Sticking to the word count is also important. Exceeding what you have been asked for is not viewed as a positive by time-constrained lecturers, and you are likely to be penalised if you do not stick to the count.

Make sure to reference your essay properly and thoroughly.

Always read through the essay when you are finished. You will be surprised at the number of sentences that don’t make sense and the spellings that spell-check missed.

Often printing out an essay and going through it with a pen on paper makes it easier to spot the mistakes you have previously overlooked.


Even if it is unintentional, plagiarism is a big issue in university, particularly for first years who may be unfamiliar with the term.

It is important to familiarise yourself with your college’s referencing styles or to attend workshops on how best to reference works.

Most universities now have software called Turnitin, which will scan your work to see if it has been stolen from someone else.

And your lecturers, who are often experts in the subjects they are teaching, are familiar with the texts on the topic. They will know if you are plagiarising.

It’s simply not worth the risk of getting caught.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is a reporter for The Irish Times